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A Quick Look at Pranksters on April Fool's Day

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

How did April Fool's pranks and jokes originate?

How did April Fool's pranks and jokes originate?

A Fool-ish Holiday

Pranksters must spend sleepless hours in the late winter thinking up ways to fool friends and colleagues. Many corporations join in the fun by trying to trick us into believing they have souls. Mostly, April Fool’s antics cause a chuckle and sometimes a really good belly laugh, but occasionally, they go horribly wrong.

Origin of April Fool’s Jokes

Ben Schott writes that there’s as much dispute over where the notion of April Fool’s Day came from as there is over the placement of the apostrophe in its name.

Some Christians claim a biblical provenance, while Hindus say it comes from their festival of Holi, which ends with a flurry of tricks and hoaxes. Others say it’s the spring equivalent of Halloween trick or treating at the start of winter, a time to express the exuberance of springtime fertility. These folks draw on Roman, Celt, and Druid practices to date the origin of April Fool’s Day.

But, should Pope Gregory XIII get the credit for creating a festival of frivolity? In 1582, he ordered the scrapping of the Julian calendar and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, thus moving New Year’s Day from April 1st to January 1st. Some people refused to change and were mocked as fools by the modernists who accepted the new calendar.

All of these theories are probably wrong yet the first twelve hours of April 1st are seen as open season for practical jokers all over the Western world. Some now extend the time for tricks to last the whole day.

In 2001, a coffee company pulled this stunt suggesting it was the start of construction on Copenhagen's subway.

In 2001, a coffee company pulled this stunt suggesting it was the start of construction on Copenhagen's subway.

Famous April Fool’s Jokes

Media hoaxes have a long tradition.

Everybody takes their hats off to the BBC for its Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax in 1957. The highly respected current events program Panorama carried a film showing Swiss farmers picking freshly-grown spaghetti from trees in their pasta orchards.

The British television network was flooded with requests from viewers who wanted to know where they could buy spaghetti plants. The BBC solemnly advised viewers to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

In 2009, CNN called this “undoubtedly the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled.”

In 1962, Sweden had a single television channel and its shows were broadcast in black and white. On April 1st, Sveriges Television put “technical expert” Kjell Stensson on air to demonstrate how to convert sets to colour. He gave a hocus-pocus talk about the technology of the prismatic nature of light and described something he called “double slit interference.”

Then, he cut to the chase and said black and white could be turned into colour if a fine-mesh material was placed in front of the screen. And, where could the average homeowner find such a screen? Cut-to-size nylon stockings of course. Hosiery was destroyed all over the country.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper is a major league player in pulling the wool over its reader’s eyes. In 1977, it published a seven-page travel guide to the island of San Serriffe with descriptions of the non-existent state rendered entirely in printing terms.

Some Guardian readers got in on the joke and wrote letters telling of wonderful holidays on the Indian Ocean island. There was even criticism from the “San Serriffe Liberation Front” that lamented the pro-government leanings of the supplement.

Not everybody got it. Travel agents and airlines were angry because they had trouble explaining to would-be vacationers that there was no such place for them to go with their buckets and spades.

In 1985, Sports Illustrated ran a long article by George Plimpton describing a phenom signed by the New York Mets. Sidd Finch was a pitching wizard with a 168 mph fastball, which he said came from meditations in Tibet. Sidd Finch was a bit odd in that he always carried a French horn with him wherever he went and wore a single hiking boot planted on the mound when pitching.

The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.

— Mark Twain

Some Recent Capers

The crop of April first frolics in the last couple of years include:

  • A University of Vermont announcement that its ice rink surface was to be recycled into frozen dessert treats;
  • Rotorua is a popular tourist town in New Zealand. It said the rotten egg smell that comes from volcanic geysers is a powerful aphrodisiac that attracted the attention of Hugh Hefner who wanted to build a mansion there;
  • National Geographic announced that it would stop degrading animals by publishing nude photos of them, in the future all animals would be clothed;
  • Amazon unveiled its Kindle Paperscent, an e-reader that also delivers the smell of a new book along with the text;
  • The Texas state comptroller’s office said it was bringing back its own currency―the redback. Willie Nelson was going to be on the ten redback bill;
  • The Hartlepool Mail Photoshopped a sinkhole onto the set of Coronation Street “halting filming and putting storylines in jeopardy;” and,
  • Google announced it was launching self-driving bicycles in the Netherlands.

When Pranks Go Wrong

Your daughter works at a college in the U.S. It’s April Fool’s Day 2014. What better way to liven things up than by sending her a text that you could hear gunshots on the campus?

For Angela Timmons, the hilarity of the joke wore off when she was arrested by Spartanburg, South Carolina police and charged with “aggravated breach of peace and disturbing a school.”

Milton is a suburb of Boston and one of its geographic features is the Great Blue Hill, a very modest affair that hardly deserves the adjective "great." In 1980, the rascals in the newsroom of WNAC-TV thought it was a terrific jape to warn the folks in the area that the hill was a volcano and it was about to pop. Families called the police to find out when they should evacuate. The producer was fired.

Remember the bubble when teenagers in their bedrooms could launch a digital company in the morning and be worth millions by supper time? In 1999, a bunch of characters cooked up a news release describing Webnode, a revolutionary internet routing system that was going to create fortunes for those who got in early. The story was carried by Business Wire and investors scrambled to buy a node for $100. But, there were no nodes and the FBI took an interest. The perpetrators were sued by Business Wire and settled for $27,500.

Bonus Factoids

  • An offshoot of the April Fool’s Day jocularity is when many new employees in industrial enterprises become the target of gags created by the old hands. The long-service employees sit in the lunch room chuckling over sending the new lad to the stores for a wheelbarrow full of post holes or a left-handed hammer. For the hundredth time, a young whippersnapper returns red-faced without the requested can of tartan paint or liquid magnet and the old lags can have a thigh-slapping chortle at his expense.
  • “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.”—Mark Twain
  • Scots extend the nonsense over two days. April 1st is Hunt the Gowk Day; a gowk being a cuckoo or fool. Tricks are also played on April 2nd, Taily Day, and they focus on peoples’ bums; this may be where the “Kick Me” sign originated. Nobody would be so crass as to make a comment about people being the butt of the joke. No. Nobody would do that.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 06, 2017:

You can't believe people fall for these pranks can you? But they do! I remember hearing about that spaghetti tree one!